originally published August 12, 2014
What if I told you that I’d recently unlocked a treasure of scientific magic so potent and transformative it would affect the way everyone on the planet conducted their everyday lives. “But wait,” you might say, “haven’t you been spending the past 955 days writing a bunch of hastily-researched yet irrepressibly delightful articles?” “Okay,” I’d probably admit, “you have a point.”
But if the year was 1983, and “you” were the Chinese government and “I” was Wang Hongcheng, an uneducated bus driver from Harbin, you might actually listen. This was supposed to be the game-changer that would propel China from a communist non-player into the driver’s seat of the global economic Hummer. China would win the energy game; the Middle East would need to find something besides bubblin’ crude to keep their gazillions rolling in; the entirety of everything would be flipped.
All because of Wang’s magic liquid. The stuff that dreams are made of – the stuff that could build an empire whilst crumbling several others.
Also, if someone ends up making a movie out of this story, I hope they call it Wang’s Magic Liquid. But they probably won’t.
Wang Hongcheng made it through ninth grade, served some time as a soldier, then became a bus driver – just another faceless cog among the Harbin masses, toiling at a day job and doing his obligatory service for the collective, in accordance with Maoist principles. But clearly Wang wanted more. Wang wanted to be known for something extraordinary. Despite his complete lack of scientific training, Wang claimed he had invented a liquid that could transform a bland liter of water into a spectacular fuel, simply by adding a few precious drops of his secret serum.
The fuel created would be as combustible as gasoline, and could serve to transform the very foundations of the energy industry. He called it the “fifth greatest invention of China”, referring to the famous Four Great Inventions of ancient China: the compass, gunpowder, printing, and duck sauce. He presented his claim to the Chinese government, who responded with a cautious and analytical reaction.
The Hongcheng Magic Liquid company was formed around 1992, meaning Wang kept pushing his charade as far as he could. Despite having provided no functional evidence (or even, to my knowledge, a legitimate explanation) of his glorious fluid, Wang received somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 million yuan in the form of government support, which translates to about 37 million American bucks. A small price for China to pay for reimagining the future.
Albeit a huge price to pay for taking Wang’s word for it.
In 1994 the Chinese government began to notice that its people were putting more faith in pseudoscience and superstition than they used to. Fraudsters were roaming the rural swath of Chinese countryside, claiming to be masters of Qigong – pure life energy. They claimed they could project their inner Qi out of their bodies and heal people. One man was criminally charged when his alleged healing power led to the deaths of several people. It wasn’t a huge leap for China’s governing skeptics to link the people’s blind faith in mystic healers with the government’s own blind faith in Wang Hongcheng’s alchemy juice.
Song Jian, who at the time was running the National Science Committee (and joined in the government’s concern that science education among the masses was a few steps beneath pitiful), heard a rumor. Apparently there was an article by a man named He Zuoxiu, which effectively debunked Wang’s secret formula. The article had been sent to three national newspapers and a scientific journal and had been rejected everywhere – and it utterly refuted any and all of Wang’s claims.
Zuoxiu had been invited by Wang’s fan-base up to the northwest part of the country to see the wizardry-broth in action. Not wanting to walk into the trap of Wang’s rigged-up sanctuary, he instead invited Wang to Beijing for a proper appraisal by others in the field. Wang refused.
Perhaps he was hoping to forestall the revelation of his duplicity until he’d milked some more money from the government. But the cat wasted no time in leaping out of the bag; Wang’s refusal to test a simple liquid (which would involve nothing more on his part than travelling on a train with a vial of the stuff in his pocket) was enough to out him.
In 1998, Wang Hongcheng was found guilty of fraud and deceit and was handed a decade behind bars. In the process, the man became a legendary figure in Chinese popular culture. Not only did he pull off a spectacular swindle, but he had achieved a cult-type following of believers who were so thickly mired in the sludge of delusion that they built an alleged conspiracy around Wang’s conviction.
What if his enchanted elixir actually worked? What if the Chinese government was part of an elaborate cover-up, paid for by the oil industry to ensure nothing usurped them at the top rung of the energy ladder? The free energy suppression conspiracy theory is a multi-layered mosaic of maybes, all of which point to governments fuelling our persistent addiction to oil-related products. Maybe Wang is a victim: in prison, not for defrauding the government but for refusing to hand over his liquid sorcery to the cold, dead hands of the people in charge.
The government of China made it their official mission to right the ship of science education within their borders, and to try to quash the public’s tenacious grip to the pseudoscience that had been praying upon the collective ignorance of rural folk since China’s feudal age. When it was found that a government official had actually intervened and yanked another article critical of Wang Hongcheng from a newspaper, fixing the corruption problem was added to the list.
I have been unsuccessful at tracking down any further information on Wang Hongcheng. Six years have passed since his prison term should have ended, and there appears to be no resurgence in his illusory gas-juice. Perhaps he hung his head and reclaimed his position driving a bus around Harbin. Maybe he’d squirreled away some of that massive payday and he’s living like a prince somewhere in the South Pacific – though given the tight ship of the Chinese banking system that isn’t likely.
The truth is, Wang was probably happy drifting back into being one of the faceless cogs, his adventure in the public eye – first as hero, then as asshole – long behind him.
Or maybe he knew too much, and Big Oil had him ‘erased’ while he was serving time. I’m pretty certain we will never know.